PS I came across the quotation above and thought I'd drop it into the blog quickly, since we've become far too tired of erosion of civil liberties in the face of various threats, real, exaggerated, and imaginary. In the back of my mind, however, was a slight cloudiness: wasn't Mencken a nasty piece of work in some ways that I couldn't quite remember? Sort of like Evelyn Waugh? Or Ayn Rand? Oh well. Get the post up before I lose the reference.
Our good friend Walter called me on this, so I did a little googling. The man who wrote some version of the bon mot I always associate him with, "No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public," did indeed hold some very dubious opinions. Here's a fair-minded critique I found on Mencken's faults and minor claim to fame as a wordsmith.
Another postscript required. After being impressed by the piece pasted below, I was disappointed to find that the author has some dubious political affiliations of his own. Libertarianism is a broad church.
That’s the Capuchin Mencken, the Mencken of the neoconservatives. Like the organ-grinder’s monkey, this Mencken is a parody of a human being and little more than a sideshow to the fellow cranking out the music, or in this case, cranking out the party line. Mencken is so far removed from that party line, so politically incorrect even to those who think of themselves as opponents of p.c., that his critics (especially those on the putative Right) can hardly take him seriously.
Reviews of Terry Teachout’s recent biography of Mencken, The Skeptic, have been a case in point. My own thoughts on the book can be found in the current issue of the American Conservative (March 24, 2003 – with Pat Buchanan’s important essay "Whose War?" on the cover), so I won’t elaborate upon them here. Instead, however, I’ll call attention to what other reviewers have said, and how they have generally marginalized Mencken in the same way.
A good place to begin is with Russell Baker’s piece from the New York Review of Books. It’s one of the better and more detailed reviews, and one relatively even-handed in its treatment of Mencken. At least it doesn’t make him out to be a monster or a total buffoon. Baker instead simply discounts Mencken’s beliefs and emphasizes the indisputable quality of his style. So, for example, Baker writes, "Though [Mencken’s] political pieces sometimes seem repetitious and occasionally silly, much in them is still a pleasure to read for the quality, even the beauty, of the prose." And after quoting a few lines from Mencken, Baker writes:
This is fair enough; one would never expect to find the New York Review of Books endorsing political views like Mencken’s anyway, no matter how rigorously or systematically they may have been laid out. Mencken certainly wasn’t systematic and had never intended to be, in any event. A review in the Atlantic by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley makes that very point: "Mencken's ‘conservatism’ was more a state of mind than an ideology. It had, and has, little in common with what now passes for conservatism, and diehard ideologues of that persuasion will find small comfort in his claim that he was "constitutionally unable to believe in anything absolutely." Yardley’s review, in fact, is excellent; he notes that he himself had been planning to write a Mencken at one point, but never got around to it. It’s a shame, because Yardley evidently has both enthusiasm for Mencken – although not uncritical enthusiasm – and an insightful appreciation for his literary and critical accomplishments.
But then there are, as Yardley says, those diehard ideologues now passing for conservatives. Enter Hilton Kramer and his New Criterion essay, "Who Reads Mencken Now?" Kramer’s answer to his own question is: virtually no one. But this, he suggests, is not to be lamented, for Mencken possessed "a philistine outlook" and his work was "thin in intellectual substance and woefully lacking in a sense of history." Kramer elaborates:
And lest it seem as though Mencken’s sin was borne of ignorance and perhaps only venial, Kramer concludes by asserting that
Mencken was no supporter of Hitler, and even Kramer doesn’t dare suggest that he was, but his love of German culture and his contempt for mass democracy are bad enough. Unforgivable, in fact.
As it happens, even Hilton Kramer’s own readers were not prepared to accept this. Two letters in response to the article are published on the journal’s website, each refuting the notion that Mencken isn’t much read today (and, implicitly, the notion that he shouldn’t be read). The one letter points to the fairly high ranking of the Mencken Chrestomathy on the Amazon.com sales chart, and asks how well Mencken’s contemporary peers are selling (answer: not nearly as well). The other suggests to Kramer that "Generation X" is reading Mencken, and finds in him a kindred spirit. This second letter, by Scott Locklin, is worth quoting in part:
One suspects, of course, that that’s the real point: elitist libertarianism is precisely what Kramer finds unacceptable. Russell Baker can afford simply to pooh-pooh Mencken’s politics but Kramer has to worry about the ideological competition; he has to draw a firm line and declare Mencken completely out-of-bounds. Atheism is one thing, but preaching the virtues of the Germans and disbelief in "democracy" is a real heresy, one well deserving of harsh punishment.
Kramer is the most forceful of Mencken’s critics on the Right, but he’s hardly alone. Others include, surprisingly or not, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., founder and editor of the American Spectator, and a man who has made a career out of aping Mencken’s prose (Tyrell cites approvingly Paul Greenberg’s description of Tyrrell himself as "the closest that 1995 America can come to its own H.L. Mencken"). Tyrrell wrote the cover story for the November/December 2002 American Spectator, a piece called "The Dark Sage: Reconsidering H.L. Mencken." For the most part, Tyrrell is simply dismissive of Mencken as a thinker: "while Mencken was laughing on the outside, almost nothing was going on on the inside"; "when he endeavored to pronounce authoritatively on great events, he usually spoke from ignorance"; "there was actually less to him than met the eye"; "He missed every art movement of his time save American fiction’s realists. He also missed the rise and fall of dictatorships." That last is especially significant; for Tyrrell, Mencken was "as oblivious to the drama of evil’s rise and fall in his lifetime as he was to the irenic force of American democracy."
For Tyrrell no less than for Kramer, it is Mencken’s rejection of democracy that marks him out as a defective thinker, and indeed a defective human being. Tyrrell the imitator of Mencken’s style prefers the democratic socialist politics of Sidney Hook to the Mencken’s libertarianism; as Tyrrell says, "Had Mencken shared Sidney’s belief in democracy he might have made greater contributions to the life of the mind." At issue here is not that Tyrrell simply disagrees with or doesn’t accept Mencken’s beliefs, but that Mencken’s rejection of democracy proves him to be a fool, just as for Kramer Mencken’s politically incorrect attitude toward democracy proves him to be a villain. Mencken’s rejection of democracy is illegitimate.
There are a great many valid criticisms that can be leveled against Mencken the thinker, but the sorts of criticisms that come from Kramer and Tyrrell are ideological rather than intellectual. He was no idiot, and if he was not a systematic or particularly academic thinker, it’s nonetheless worth remembering that he was at root a journalist. As such he was no more dense than his contemporary colleagues, and indeed he outshone more than a few academics, as proven by his pioneering study The American Language. But really Mencken’s intelligence is not in any doubt. It’s his judgment, taste and conscious beliefs that have put him beyond the pale of acceptable opinion today, even – or especially – in "conservative" circles.
If Mencken were alive today, who would publish him? For all the acknowledged power of his style, Mencken’s politics wouldn’t make the grade for the New Criterion or the American Spectator, or presumably any of the other major (neo)conservative publications that toe the same line. The Left would, by and large, have nothing to do with such a man either, and even many libertarians would balk at him (and he, who styled himself a Kaiserliche-Konigliche Tory, would no doubt have had little use for the average "modal" libertarian). It’s hard to imagine Mencken making a monkey out of himself for anybody, but with the political spectrum as constricted and muddied as it is today, what’s left? The American Conservative, for one thing, whose co-editor Taki Theodoracopulos has more than a little of what Mencken had – Taki once wondered in print why the vote of a doctor who saves lives should count for exactly as much as a welfare bum who does nothing. Of course, there is also at least one other place where Mencken would certainly fit right in, someplace rather close to home. There might be rather few people now who can appreciate Mencken for both his style and his thought, but one suspects that Mencken, inveterate foe of the booboisie and the simian masses, would have liked it that way.